HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Thirty-two years after the Molotov cocktails lighted a frosty Mississippi night, authorities arrested three aging Klansmen yesterday and revived charges against them in the 1966 slaying of Vernon Dahmer, one of this state's most revered civil rights leaders.
One of the defendants rousted from their homes yesterday morning was Sam Bowers, the founder and former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that federal authorities blame for 10 murders and hundreds of other violent acts during the civil rights era.
Bowers, a 73-year-old businessman from nearby Laurel, Miss., served six years in jail on a federal conviction for his role in a separate set of civil rights murders, the 1964 killings of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in Philadelphia, Miss. But juries deadlocked in each of his four trials in the Dahmer case, where Bowers faced charges of ordering, but not participating in, the firebombing that took Dahmer's life.
"This time," promised Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, "is going to be different."
The Dahmer case marks the second time this decade that Mississippi prosecutors have used new evidence to resurrect long-dormant charges in a high-profile civil rights murder. In 1994, prosecutors in Jackson overcame the burdens presented by stale evidence, dead witnesses and constitutional questions to convict Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. As in the Dahmer case, all-white juries had deadlocked in Beckwith's previous trials, leading to mistrials.
Dahmer's family took hope from the Beckwith prosecution and pressured state and county officials to reopen the investigation of his death. They did so in 1991, and yesterday Dahmer's widow, Ellie Dahmer, found some degree of satisfaction in watching television footage of Bowers being led, handcuffed and expressionless, into the Forrest County jail.
"At last, they're bringing him into court again, at last," Dahmer said. "It's bringing us one step closer. I realize we've got a long way to go, but Mississippians are stepping up and not following the old pattern."
Like Ellie Dahmer, Moore stressed yesterday that a conviction in the Dahmer case would signify how Mississippi has changed.
"These people have kept hope alive all these years," he said of the Dahmers. "We're going to try to keep it alive a little bit longer and bring the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to justice." Bowers and the other two men arrested yesterday, Deavours Nix, 72, and Charles Noble, 55, were led into the county jail, where they were processed in full view of a bank of television cameras. Nix, who is suffering from cancer, hobbled stiff-legged into the jail as family members trailed behind him with a green tank that supplies him with oxygen.
Prosecutors declined to discuss the new evidence that they believe will win convictions.
But Vernon Dahmer Jr., one of Dahmer's sons, said the most important new evidence comes from a confidential informant who approached the Dahmers last year. The witness, he said, is a former protege of Bowers, a teen-ager at the time of the killing, who has said he overheard Bowers and Nix discussing the plot to bomb the Dahmers' house.
In addition, prosecutors this year have viewed files on Dahmer from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency that used spy tactics and intimidation to thwart desegregation efforts. After a 21-year court fight, the commission's files were unsealed in March. They make it clear that Dahmer was watched extensively, but there has been no public disclosure of documents from the files that shed new light on his death.
Pub Date: 5/29/98